Past Presidential Ballots With Two Attorneys

Roundup: Talking About History

Tony Mauro, USA TODAY, 11 Oct. 2004

It probably should have come as no surprise that Democratic candidates John Kerry and John Edwards would more than hold their own in the recent debates against President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Kerry and Edwards are both lawyers, and the thrust and parry of debating, challenging, questioning and defending should be second nature to them. Yes, among the stark differences between the two tickets in the election of 2004, here is one you might not have thought of: Two lawyers are running against two non-lawyers. That contrast means quite a bit, though not in the ways you might expect.

You probably already knew Edwards was a lawyer; he built his career -- and made millions -- suing doctors and others on behalf of seriously injured individuals. He earned his law degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But as Kerry said during the debate on Friday,"I'm a lawyer, too." After his service in the Vietnam War and before he was elected to the Senate, Kerry went to Boston College Law School and served as a prosecutor in Massachusetts.

Bush and Cheney both ran businesses and held public office with varying degrees of success, but they never once hung out a shingle that read,"attorney at law." That is a gap in their rsums of which they are proud, no doubt.

On the campaign trail, Bush and Cheney have made cracks about lawyers -- easy targets, given that lawyers are generally held in low esteem. Last December, a Gallup Poll found only 16% of the public ranked lawyers' ethics as high; among professions, lawyers were toward the bottom along with journalists and members of Congress.

But the lawyerly past of the Democratic ticket has not emerged as a major battle cry. When taking a swing at trial lawyers during their respective debates, both Bush and Cheney linked them -- but not Edwards personally -- to the rise in medical malpractice insurance. Kerry and Edwards both shrugged off the charge, and Edwards told the story of one of his injured clients, coming across as a fighter for the little guy, not an economy-wrecking evildoer. When USA TODAY polled voters in July about Edwards' background as a trial lawyer, two-thirds said it was a plus, not a minus.

A good track record

History tells us not to fear lawyers as presidents. A fascinating new book looks at the 25 out of 43 presidents who were also lawyers. America's Lawyer-Presidents, edited by Norman Gross, details the legal careers of all who made it from law offices to the Oval Office.

As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in her foreword,"Our constitutional democracy has always relied on the talents and hard work of lawyers in private practice, public service and political office."

Before he set about drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson handled legal paperwork on real estate transactions in Virginia."Honest Abe" Lincoln had a long and distinguished legal career, and he offered this advice to people contemplating a life in the law:"Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker, the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man."

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on the other hand, was a Columbia Law School dropout. But he still practiced law for a time, mainly as a prelude to politics. In fact, that is how most lawyer-presidents viewed their legal careers.

Bill Clinton, for example, was a professor at the University of Arkansas Law School and attorney general of the state, but he viewed those positions as steppingstones to becoming governor, then president.

Which brings up one undeniable drawback of some of our lawyer-presidents. Clinton, believing himself to be a legal expert, may have felt emboldened to skate close to the line that led to his impeachment woes. And the last time we had a successful two-lawyer ticket -- Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in 1972 -- both left office in disgrace. A law license clearly is not a ticket to sainthood.

The U.S. Supreme Court

There is one important way in which a background as a lawyer means a great deal, and it relates to a task the next president almost surely will face: picking U.S. Supreme Court justices. From their early training, lawyers know how important the high court is in the life of the nation, and they tend to act accordingly. Nearly two-thirds of the Supreme Court justices generally viewed by historians as"great" or"near-great" were appointed by presidents who were also lawyers, according to Gross' book.

John Adams, the first lawyer-president, appointed John Marshall, viewed as our greatest chief justice. William Taft named Charles Hughes to the bench, and Woodrow Wilson appointed Louis Brandeis. FDR, bored by the law himself, nonetheless named Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, William Douglas, Robert Jackson and Wiley Rutledge, each stellar in his own way.

After 10 years without vacancies on the current Supreme Court, it is almost certain that one or more justices will depart in the next president's term of office. President Ford once said,"Few appointments a president makes can have as much impact on the future of the country as those to the Supreme Court."

Ford should know. Justice John Paul Stevens, Ford's only appointment to the Supreme Court, is still on the court today, a powerful force nearly 30 years after Ford -- himself a lawyer-president -- appointed him.

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